by Simon Daish (Interview conducted by Pablo Perez, ITTF Head of Para Table Tennis)
Competing in men’s singles class 10, Gilles de la Bourdonnaye needed just the three games to beat Russia’s Pavel Lukyanov (11-8, 11-9, 11-4) in their quarter-final encounter. The Frenchman recorded the same margin of victory one round later with Czech Republic’s Tibor Chmela the next player to fall (11-8, 11-7, 11-4).
Only one player from each category claiming a ticket to Tokyo, at the final hurdle de la Bourdonnaye held off a comeback charge from Polish counterpart Igor Misztal (11-6, 11-4, 4-11, 9-11, 11-8) to qualify for a sixth Paralympic Games on Saturday 5th June.
“It’s just unbelievable because I have a long history with the Paralympic Games. I played from Barcelona 1992 until Beijing 2008, so five Paralympic Games in a row but then I stopped because I had a lot of work and two kids. I came back, to train hard three years ago so it was a big challenge for me. It’s unbelievable because the level was very high, all the best players were here so it’s just amazing!” Gilles de la Bourdonnaye
Born right-handed, de la Bourdonnaye was forced to adapt after losing his arm to amputation aged three, relearning and mastering everything he possibly could with his left hand.
A man who continues to demonstrate his craft at the highest level three decades into his playing career, de la Bourdonnaye’s record is outstanding. Taking home men’s singles class 10 silver at the 1992 Paralympic Games, he was also crowned World champion in 2002 and was honoured as World no.1 in April 2003, that’s alongside the plethora of continental titles in his trophy collection!
Following an 11-year break from international sport, de la Bourdonnaye returned to action in 2019 and highlighted the major progress made in tournament organisation over the past decade, pointing to Lasko as a shining example for other events to aspire to.
“In class 10 the difference is not that big, the level is very high, the top ten in the world are all very good but in 2008 the level was very high too… However, the quality of organisation is 10 times better. Before, once a year you would have a good tournament, other times the rooms weren’t good for wheelchairs for instance, now it’s perfect. Here in Lasko, it’s always perfect, the organisation is very good, but I’ve also had the opportunity to compete in four or five tournaments in Slovenia and Finland and they were also all very good.” Gilles de la Bourdonnaye
Forced into a nationwide lockdown in the early months of 2020, de la Bourdonnaye spent three months away from the table but made the best he could of the situation, spending time with his family and working on his fitness in the garden.
Fortunately, de la Bourdonnaye has been able to attend regular training since the end of the first national lockdown with professional athletes granted special dispensation. However, while table time hasn’t been an issue, de la Bourdonnaye feels the lack of competition has been less than ideal and is somewhat surprised by how quickly he managed to get up to speed in Lasko.
“Last year I couldn’t play for three months, so I stayed home with my family. We have a small garden so I could do some exercise in it. I have been lucky because I haven’t stopped playing since April last year, we professional players could train… it’s just we had no competition, training is good, but competition is better… In Nantes, France, we have a good level of players, we have the best junior player in France and strong adults too, they are all in my city, so it was not hard for me to train… It’s true, I didn’t know how quickly I could find my game here, because you never know with one year out of competition.” Gilles de la Bourdonnaye
No time to rest, de la Bourdonnaye has commitments in his professional career to attend and it won’t be long before his attention shifts to Tokyo 2020 with the Paralympic Games just over the horizon.
“I have a lot of work to do in my job and then we will focus on Tokyo, especially with the team and my partner Mateo… He came here to support me and warm up with me, so we have a good team, and we’ll train together.” Gilles de la Bourdonnaye
Before leaving Lasko, the Frenchman wanted to thank a couple of important figures from his personal and sporting background including his wife, who is a former player herself, and national teammate Mateo Boheas.
“There are many people to thank, my wife has been supporting me a lot. She’s a former Czech player so we met when she was playing for Czech Republic, and I was playing for France and we have two kids now. I also want to thank Mateo Boheas, he is also here and is always supporting me – he believes in me more than I do myself!” Gilles de la Bourdonnaye
Paralympic World Qualification Tournament – Results: http://www.ipttc.org/upload/